Medical diagnoses and prescriptions tell us that on any given day, about 25 percent of us are struggling with situational, seasonal, or chronic depression. Twenty-five percent. And that is pre-pandemic. Evidence seems to indicate that there will be a significant jump in those numbers from 2020 through the next few years. And, of course, none of this takes into account those who struggle undiagnosed. That’s a lot of people even in a typical year. Mental health experts have been calling it an epidemic for some time now. People born in the last five decades are up to ten times more likely to deal with depression than those born in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s.
Suicide used to be a middle-aged man’s desperate attempt to end the pain. But in the last few decades suicide rates among the young have quadrupled, while rates of suicide among strict Amish communities have remained stable. This seems to indicate that the ever-increasing pace of life and mounting stresses and responsibilities in this mobile, global economy, where we are inundated with massive doses of advertisements and bad news and increased costs and fragmented communities, have placed an increasingly unbearable burden on our human souls, emotions, and relationships. And I remind you, again, that all these statistics are from 2018-2019.
Today there are a lot of anxious and painfully sad people in our society and in our churches, daily walking through what seems to be a long valley of shadows. Friends, you are not alone, and we’re in this together – maybe more than you know. You belong.
Feeling blue is the common cold of our human existence, a fever that comes and goes and stays above or just below the surface of our humanity, an angst made even more stark when compared with the episodes of love and peace and joy that we have known in life – those seasons when our life was nothing but green pastures and our cup and table were overflowing. As the author of Ecclesiastes himself notes, God has woven eternity into our souls, and yet those souls live in an imperfect and painful world (Eccl. 3:11 ff).
If you are human, there will be dark valleys in your life – they are unavoidable. Psalm 23 candidly faces the inevitable. It proclaims not “if” but “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ….” Life isn’t all loaded tables, overflowing cups or green pastures. Sometimes our hair isn’t anointed with oil, but grimed with grease. Sometimes we’re not lying in green pastures but flailing in blue Mondays. Sometimes we’re not resting by the shore of still waters but struggling in the valley of the shadow.
Every one of us has a valley. Some of us have a valley we’ve been given at birth – a valley of poverty, or abuse, or disability. Some of us, born into the green pastures of plenty, immediately proceed to dig our own valleys of shadow – through drugs or alcohol, violence, ignorance, prejudice.
Perhaps the key word for us to grasp when it comes to these dark valley experiences from what the Psalmist says is “through.” He says he is going to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” he’s not going to be trapped in it or be unable to escape from it, it’s an experience, however difficult, that he is going to make it through. Crisis in this life are all ultimately temporary, the Psalmist knows he is going to survive this journey, he will make it through even the darkest valley.
The Psalmist is not claiming that he will make it through this dark valley under his own steam, this is not a case of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Instead he claims he will make it through the valley because of who will walk through it with him, the Lord, who is his Shepherd. “Though” none of us gets out of life without walking the valley, the psalmist makes it plain that God does not intend for us to sojourn there forever. The valley of the shadow is something one goes through. Valleys are not resting places, but passageways. We can walk through our problems. We can walk through our sorrows. We can walk through our pain. We can walk through our screw-ups. What Psalm 23 promises us is that, in all these journeys, the Lord will walk through with us.
“Though” and “through” differ only by one small letter – the letter “r.” In American Sign Language, “r” is made by crossing the middle finger over the index finger. But crossed fingers have a history as sign language that far pre-dates ASL. In the first centuries of the Church, when Christianity was wholly illegal and Christians were vigorously persecuted, believers found ways to communicate their faith in subtle ways. Accompanying a greeting or farewell, crossed fingers were a code sign, identifying Christians to one another as “people of the cross.” The crossed fingers were a mute symbol for the cross of Christ and the redemption Christ’s death on that cross brought to all people.
Today, crossed fingers mean something very different. When placed behind one’s back, they mean that one doesn’t mean what one is saying. When held in one’s lap, they mean one is hoping something will or will not come to pass. It was the Christians who first invented “crossed fingers,” and they had nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with trust in God.
This is what the crossed fingers of the letter “r,” the difference that turns a “though” into a “through,” still mean to the believer today. Though we may walk in the darkness of the valley of the shadow, we are not alone. God is with us. Walking through the valley with us is the one who suffered and died for our sake: The Crucified One.
So, in this broken and beautiful in-between place, Scriptures like the Twenty-third Psalm help us. I memorized these lines years ago (in the King James, of course), and when I wake with an anxious thought in the night, David’s words about the Good Shepherd often begin rolling through my mind. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want … He restoreth my soul.” To be fair, though I memorized the KJV, I usually drop the “-eths” when it runs through my head.
And when I visit someone in the hospital or pray and talk with someone over the phone about a particular hardship, sometimes I’ll share a Scripture like this or remind them of promises or truths that we can claim and lean on as followers of Christ.
Then there are times when teachings, truths, words, even Scriptures lose their influence. Sometimes the pain and weariness are such that the most powerful thing we can provide is our presence. Sometimes telling people what to believe or how to behave, although well-intentioned, is misplaced, and the best teaching, the most important words, are those we leave unspoken. We’ve all been there.
Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing at all. This is a lesson I still struggle at times to put into practice. I know some of you may find that hard to believe since you know I’m an introvert, but I’m also a “fixer” so, when someone has a problem or difficulty, my first inclination is to offer a solution. This is particularly true for people I care about. But I have learned (and am still learning) that there are times when someone doesn’t want an answer – or couldn’t make use of it if they got one. In these times, the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. Silence doesn’t mean you don’t care, indeed, it can mean you care deeply. Deeply enough to be an ear to bend, a shoulder to cry on or a non-judgmental sounding board.
All of us have been in situations where we saw someone and immediately had their whole life story figured out in our heads. The reality, of course, is that seldom if ever do those stories match the whole truth of that person’s life. Even with long-time friends, we rarely know everything that they are going through. How much more is this true of casual friends or occasional acquaintances. And for those we are just meeting? Let’s not even go there. A quiet presence gives others a chance to share … or not; as they see fit.
It’s interesting to note in this most famous of psalms the Good Shepherd brings such poetic, profound, and enfolding comfort without one word spoken. The Lord says nothing, but He makes me lie down, He leads, He is with, He comforts, He prepares, He anoints, and He dwells with me.
Jesus speaks of Himself as the “Good Shepherd” and those appointed to be leaders of His Church are described as Shepherds. Peter tells the first generation of church leaders “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (1 Peter 5:2). One of the primary roles of leaders, in fact of everyone, in the Church is to create a caring community. We could say then, that the Church is to be a Psalm 23 community, a community where God’s presence, protection and provision is experienced through the care of God’s people.
If you are one of the fortunate ones this morning who are not wrestling with or feeling wrestled down by depression or anxiety, there is a good chance there is someone in your family or a dear friend who is. It’s important for us to know that God is aware and that the Good Shepherd is there and is with those sheep who feel lost – with those who are having a hard time keeping up, with the ones who are walking through the deep valleys. Beliefs and behaviors rarely heal hearts. Belonging does.